By Babak Taghvaee
Just sixteen months after the withdrawal of the Pahlavi government, which came about as a result of the Islamic revolution in 1979, almost 500 members of the Iranian Army and Air Force planned a coup to depose the Islamic regime, arrest its authorities and help Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi and other members of the Pahlavi government in exile, or imprisoned by the regime, to regain power.
From repression to fight for freedom
After the Islamic Revolution, Iranian Armed Forces personnel and their families found themselves living under sharia law, implemented by the new Islamic regime. Pilots were being lashed for drinking and eating during Ramadan, in front of their families and other personnel. Other servicemen and their families were questioned because of their absence during Friday prayers, or for wearing non-Islamic clothes.
There was a growing discontent, especially among Iran’s pilots. Whilst they were having to fight opposing forces in Azerbaijan, Ahwaz, and Kurdish separatists and other terrorist organizations backed by Iraq and the USSR, trying to separate Iranian provinces through armed conflict, the pilots and their families were also under pressure from the new Islamic regime as well.
In March 1979, the last prime minister of the Pahlavi government, Dr. Bakhtiar, together with some high ranking officers of the Imperial Iranian Army, Navy and Air Force, planned a coup against the Islamic regime.
Secular and Nationalist parties lead by Dr. Bakhtiar had also become frustrated by the actions of the Islamic regime which had imposed new and largely unwelcome limitations on their way of life. The alliance hoped their coup would end what they saw as nationwide oppression, injustice and lawlessness condoned and carried out by the security axes of the Islamic regime – the Islamic revolutionary committees and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Shahrokhi uprising (Operation Neghab)
Assessments and evaluations by the coup’s leaders suggested that seizing Iran’s capital city, Tehran, could lead to the fall of the Islamic regime as a whole, however choosing the capital as the headquarters of the coup could compromize their plans. To counter this possibility, the third Tactical Fighter Base, Noujeh (Shahrokhi) which was within a 60km distance from Hamedan, was selected as the official headquarters of the coup plot.
Brigadeer Ayat Mohagheghi, the former commander of TFB.1 and TFB.3, Lieutenant General Mahdiyoun, and Captains Nemati, Iran-Nejad, Poor-Rezaiee and others, were architects of the plot, and all had special knowledge of the Shahrokhi Air Base.
For this purpose, 400 members of the 23rd NOHED (Airborne Special Forces) Brigade (which was later reorganized as the 65th NOHED) and several warriors of the Bakhiari tribe, supported by several members of the IRIAF inside the air base were tasked with taking control of the third Tactical Fighter Base which was under the control of low ranking, revolutionary Homafars (aircraft technicians) led by Ataollah Bazargan on the ninth of July 1980.
The next phase of the coup required Brigadeer Mohagheghi to lead and command the air operation within the air base command post. Four pilots, Captains Hamid Nemati, Mohammad Malek, Kiyumarth Abtin and Farrokh-Zad Jahangiri were also tasked with leading four teams each, using four McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II fighter jets armed with Mk.82, Mk.82SEs, Mk.83, M117 iron bombs and AGM-65A air to ground missiles in what would be an operation carried out during daylight hours.
Twelve targets were chosen to be bombed by twelve F-4Es, on the ninth of July: Khomeini’s house in Jamaran; Mehrabad International Airport Runways; The Prime Minister’s building; IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) headquarters; Vali-Asr military base (which belonged to the IRGC); Imam Hussein military base (which also belonged to the IRGC); Gulf military base; two Islamic Revolution Committee buildings in Tehran, North of Sa’ad-Abad palace, and a part of Lavizan military base.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s house was considered to be the primary and highest value target. As a result, three aircraft and three of the best F-4 pilots were appointed to bomb his house. After attacking Khomeini’s house, an F-4E was scheduled to bomb the National TV/ Radio building, while the remaining two F-4Es were to stay airborne over Khomeini’s house in order to carry out strafing with their M61 Vulcan 20mm gun, if required.
After these attacks had taken place, two Runways of the Mehrabad International airport were going to be bombed by two F-4Es, from four different angles. The pilots had been ordered to break the sound barrier over Tehran as a way of alerting the ground forces to occupy eight targets in the city. These targets were: the Radio Television building; Mehrabad International airport; Iranian Navy headquarters; Iranian Army headquarters; Hor Military Base; Qasr Military Base; Jamshidiyeh Military Base, and Evin prison. After the occupation of the Radio and Television building, the Iranian Army Psychological Operations team was going to broadcast 40 to 50 messages prepared and supervized by Colonel Ibrahim Tahammoli.
Part of the plan involved providing security within the city, with the help of almost 3,000 members of the military police, soldiers of the Iranian Ground Force, volunteer Royalists and former members of SAVAK. A hostage release team was also going to order the release of American hostages and, at the same time, capture and arrest several high ranking authorities of the Islamic regime.
The coup’s planned operations also extended outside of the capital. Members of tribes, personnel of the 21st, 81st and 92nd Armored Divisions as well as 77th Infantry Division of the IRIGF had planned to take control of almost 15 other cities in Iran, in the East & West Azerbaijan, Bakhtaran, Khuzistan, Isfahan, Kohkiluyeh, Fars, Khorasan and Baluchistan provinces.
It was hoped that Dr. Bakhtiar could return to Iran within 48 hours, after the first stage of the coup. The plan also included the return of the Shah and the royal family within a weeks after what was hoped would be a successful coup. Whilst these plans were being drawn up, the Shah was ill in a hospital in Egypt and hadn’t yet been informed about the coup.
Revelation of the coup
In an attempt to secure the coup, Dr. Bakhtiar reached out to Iraq in the hope that they would help. This move was detrimental to the coup’s success. While the Iraqis had shown an initial interest in supporting the plan, they later informed the Iranian government through the KGB about the existence of the coup.
Several months before members of the plot were eventually arrested, Iranian authorities had heard rumours about a conspiracy involving the Iranian armed forces and an attempt to overthrow the regime via a coup. The government finally got confirmation about the existence of operation Neghab, just three days before its execution, through both KGB and CIA channels.
Almost 60 pilots and 500 officers of the Iranian Ground Forces and Air Force were main members of the coup. The IRIGF’s 1st Javidan Guard Division, 2nd Division, 21st Armored Division, 81st Bakhtaran Division, 92nd Armored Division of Ahwaz together with 65th Airborne Brigade all had important roles in the coup all over the country, as well the Gendarmerie and Police forces playing key roles. When the operation was revealed on the morning of the ninth of July, 1980, IRGC members and militias attacked Laleh park, and arrested several members of the coup who were holding a meeting at the time.
However, 70 pilots weren’t in the park during the storming of the meeting, and together with eight commandos of the 23rd Airborne Brigade, had already left to go to TFB.3. With less than one kilometre remaining to get to TFB.3, the revolutionary Homafars and IRGC members lead by Ataollah Bazargan and Hamedan’s IRGC branch commander, opened fire on them and killed six of the commandos and several other pilots. They then arrested the others. The best TFB.3 pilots, 17 high ranking officers of the 92nd Armored Brigade of Ahwaz including its commander were all arrested, and later executed.
After the coup’s failure, the regime’s newspapers announced that the plot had been detected and shut down. The plot itself was named Coup Noujeh.
In total, 121 members of the coup, including 24 IRIAF personnel out of 500 were identified, arrested and then executed under the order of Ayatollah Khomeini after a short trial in military court and the Islamic Revolution court, presided over by Islamic sharia judge Mohammadi Rei-Shahri, who was famously known as, “the butcher of the revolution”. At least 100 more pilots were arrested and imprisoned, accused of cooperating with executives of the coup.
The exact number of military personnel who lost their lives trying to enable Iran’s freedom from the Islamic regime, is not known, and would certainly be greater than the figures available today. These patriots sacrificed their lives to free the country from an oppressive regime. The Shahrokhi Uprising’s anniversary is one many Iranians observe, by remembering those who took part. This article is intended to be a tribute to those heroes.